When a first-time playwright creates a work that packs a punch, the natural response is to find out what else he has tucked away on his computer.
“JFK: A Ghostly Evening,” receiving its premiere production at Just Off Broadway Theatre, is the first piece by Scott Myers to receive a full staging, and the results are impressive. That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate areas to criticize in both the play and the production, but the show is buoyed by serious intent and a provocative view of history. Too many playwrights have only theater as a frame of reference. Myers comes at the art form from the real world.
The play, co-directed by Harvey Williams and Jacqueline Gafford, speculates on what might have transpired had President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, invited Dr. Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta, to the White House for dinner and conversation a month before Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. During the course of the evening we learn about their personal histories, their vulnerabilities and the enormous risks they face.
In performance, “JFK: A Ghostly Evening” is an earnest reflection on our shared political past and the sad legacy of inspirational leaders cut down by killers’ bullets. You could argue that Myers packs in too much history and, indeed, his play feels a bit unwieldy at times. But ultimately we receive a sobering perspective on 50 years of decline from an era of real leaders to what we have now — uninspiring technocrats.
The play begins as a sort of invocation as veteran actor Granvile O’Neal reads an apparently authentic news account of Bruce R. Watkins, the first African-American elected to the Kansas City Council, introducing a proclamation honoring Kennedy after his assassination. Watkins’ words are simple but poetic, and O’Neal brings them to life.
We then meet the principal couples — the Kennedys (Jordan Fox and Sabrina “Brie” Henderson) and the Kings (Jerron O’Neal and Lynn King) — chatting over coffee after dinner. As the play unfolds, we witness private conversations in various combinations — between JFK and MLK, between Jackie and Coretta, between each husband and wife.
Kennedy also steps out to make phone calls — first to the malevolent J. Edgar Hoover; then to his brother Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general; and finally to his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, depicted as a cartoon in a cowboy hat. Each of these three iconic characters is played by the versatile Ben Husmann.
Warren Deckert’s scenic and lighting designs take advantage of Just Off Broadway’s potentially vast performance area, creating panoramic representations of different rooms in the White House and a shadowy office where Husmann performs.
Some of the actors are clearly miscast, and they never get on the same page stylistically. In the early going, Fox seems unaccountably tense and his Boston accent comes and goes. Henderson never captures Jackie’s cool elegance. O’Neal lacks MLK’s force-of-nature charisma, and he and Lynn King aren’t matched in terms of age. But each performer delivers emotionally honest work that often taps into the script’s dramatic potential.
At various times, Kennedy sees and speaks to the ghost of slain civil-rights leader Medgar Evers (Tim Burks), who appears in a bloody shirt. Their dialogue is the most compelling writing in the show. Burks and Fox, who is more relaxed in these scenes, are charismatic actors who perform well together. These poetic, allegorical moments make the play something more than a history lesson. It becomes a meditation on mortality and spirituality.
In reality, of course, every character on stage is a ghost. They live on in our collective memory as icons, as monumental figures who forced and attempted real change. That’s the source of the play’s power.